CHN: Current Year Spending Bill Finally Passes

Last fall, Congress enacted a temporary spending measure covering domestic appropriations and non-military international programs and set it to expire on March 6.  Appropriators worked out a $410 billion package to provide full-year funding and the House passed it on February 25.  But Senators’ desires to speak out against earmarks, some other provisions, and the bill’s overall size stalled the measure, requiring a further extension until March 11.  After agreeing to allow about a dozen more amendments to be debated on the Senate floor, the Senate resumed debate, voted down all the amendments offered, and then voted to close off debate, 62-35.  Three Democrats opposed ending debate (Bayh-IN,Feingold-WI, and McCaskill-MO), and eight Republicans voted with the majority  (Alexander-TN, Bond-MO, Cochran-MS, Murkowski-AK, Shelby-AL, Snowe-ME, Specter-PA, and Wicker-MS). The Senate then passed the same omnibus spending provisions adopted by the House by voice vote on March 10.
Failure to enact full-year appropriations for FY 2009 has left most health, employment, education, housing, nutrition, and social services programs to manage for nearly half the year with the same level they had in FY 2008, despite inflation and growing need.

Virtually lost in the debate and in the press coverage were specifics about what the spending is for.  At $410 billion, the bill provides growth of about 8 percent over the previous year.  The increased funding is a response to the growing needs of families and communities hit hard by the recession, and rejects cuts in many services proposed by then President Bush.  Despite rising unemployment and other early signs of the recession, the Bush budget proposed sizable cuts in programs including job training, adult education, mental health and substance abuse treatment, social and community services, home energy assistance, and weatherization.

Congress had resorted to the temporary spending bill last fall because Members were not willing to agree to cuts like these.  The omnibus legislation provides $19 billion more than President Bush had recommended for domestic appropriations.  Despite one-year growth in funding for many programs, most human needs programs remain below their levels of a few years ago.  For instance, certain substance abuse treatment programs increase from FY 2008 to FY 2009, but will have lost 10 percent since FY 2005, taking inflation into account.  Children’s mental health services grow modestly from FY 2008 to FY 2009, but will lose 7 percent from FY 2005 through FY 2009.  Many child welfare services decline over these years, as do child care and Head Start, most education and housing programs, and services for the elderly.  (For more detail, see Coalition on Human Needs appropriations table   The FY 2009 omnibus bill complements substantial new temporary funding provided in the recently enacted economic recovery legislation (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).  Certain job training programs in the omnibus bill are flat-funded, but do receive increases in the recovery legislation, for example.

The FY 2009 omnibus bill includes earmarks, or funding for specific local projects inserted by Members of Congress.  Earmarks have become something to oppose in general, although many Members have their own.  They make up only one – two percent of the bill, and there are fewer of them than in previous years.  Although some Republicans have seized upon the earmarks as reason to oppose the omnibus bill, Republicans are responsible for 40 percent of the earmarks included within it.

Senator McCain offered an amendment to replace the omnibus bill with continued flat funding through the end of FY 2009.  That amendment failed 32-63, with 4 not voting.  Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joined with 30 Republican yes votes; of the 63 voting no, 9 were Republicans (Alexander-TN, Bennett-UT, Bond-MO, Cochran-MS, Collins-ME, Murkowski-AK, Shelby-AL, Snowe-ME, and Specter-PA).

Speaker Pelosi insisted that the Senate pass the omnibus without amendments, and threatened to replace the bill with flat funding for the rest of the fiscal year.  She no doubt counted on enough Republicans as well as Democrats to want the funding levels (and earmarks) in the omnibus to prevent such a logjam from occurring.  She turned out to be right.

Budget and Appropriations
Policy Analyses and Research